Can the Democrats win Colorado—and the rest of the West—in 2008?
In early January, the Democrats decided to bring their 2008 national convention to Denver. Business owners, hoteliers, and city bean counters did backflips over the expected $160 million cash dump that the hordes of politicians, TV crews, and hangers-on are expected to bring to town. Never mind that ordinary folk—especially those living or working downtown—gloomily envisioned a week of mayhem and started booking flights for long weekends in Mexico or advertising their coveted parking spaces on Craigslist.
The real winner, of course, isn’t Denver or its citizens—it’s the Democrats. By holding their convention in Denver, they’ve signaled to the country that they’re marching, knees high, into the West. It’s a bold move, and it’s long overdue: The last time the Dems held a convention in Denver was 1908, and it’s been 80 years since they held a convention west of Chicago or east of California. Over the next six pages, we’ll look at what the West means to the political left.
In the mid-20th century, a Democratic majority relied on a union between the Northeast and South. Today, that union is dead. “Since , Republican presidential candidates have enjoyed a virtual monopoly on the South’s electoral votes,” writes Thomas Schaller, a political science professor at University of Maryland–Baltimore County, in Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South. “In the nine presidential elections between 1972 and 2004, Democrats have sent one lamb after another to their southern slaughter…. Of the 1,260 total electoral votes cast by the eleven southern states between 1972 and 2004, Republicans won 1,039 of them—almost 83 percent.” A slaughter indeed.
Without the South, the Democrats have been looking to the Midwest for votes. Ohio (population: 11.5 million), in particular, has become the swing state. If 60,000 Ohioans had switched their votes to John Kerry, the senator would have been hanging his windsurfing posters in the Oval Office. But the Democrats spent millions in Ohio—making it one of the main focuses of the presidential race—and they still lost. Meanwhile, as conservative writer Ryan Sager notes in The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians, and the Battle to Control the Republican Party, smaller swing states like Nevada (population 2.4 million), New Mexico (population 1.9 million), and, you guessed it, Colorado (population 4.7 million), were barely noticed. If just under 64,000 voters in those three states—about 50,000 in Colorado, 11,000 in Nevada, and 3,000 in New Mexico—had swung left, Kerry would also be president.
Though Ohio will remain a keystone, expect the Interior West to become a major battleground in 2008. “There’s going to be a huge amount of effort, time, and money spent on the presidential campaigns in the Rocky Mountain West,” says Mike Stratton, a Denver-based Democratic political consultant and senior adviser to New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson’s presidential campaign. “A lot of people believe that the election is going to be won or lost in Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and Montana.”
Past elections aside, a general population shift is also forcing the Democrats’ hand. The largely Democratic Northeast and Midwest have seen their populations stagnate, while the Republican South and the Southwest are growing at a breakneck pace. As the Brookings Institute notes in a recent study, this will have a profound effect on the Electoral College, which awards votes based upon the size of the population of individual states and is recalculated following each census. If population continues to soar in the “sunbelt” of the South and the West, as is expected, these states will start stealing votes from the “snowbelt” of the Northeast and the Midwest. In 2030, if the Republicans are still winning the states Bush won in 2004, they’ll double the size of their electoral victories, bumping their electoral advantage from 17 votes to 34. Democrats would have a steep hill to climb.
And so it is that the politicians and analysts are making noise about a new “Western strategy” for the Democratic Party. The idea? Taking a centrist approach to such troubling Western issues as the environment, public land use, and water conservation and rights, as well as broader issues like renewable energy, health care, immigration, and national security. The target? The traditionally right-leaning states that comprise the Interior West: New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Nevada, and Arizona.
Who’s lining up behind the strategy? A good number of Democrats, both Western and coastal. Schaller makes the West a prominent part of his national Democratic strategy in Whistling Past Dixie. Liberal writer Paul Waldman includes it in Being Right is Not Enough: What Progressives Must Learn from Conservative Success, while Sager frets about it in The Elephant in the Room. Bloggers, from Markos Moulitsas at DailyKos to David Sirota at the Huffington Post, are particularly enraptured with the idea. Kari Chisholm, a political consultant in Portland, published an editorial following the 2004 election in The Oregonian newspaper blasting the candidacy of an East Coast liberal like John Kerry. Chisholm advised the national Democratic Party: “Let us look west. In the mountains and ranchlands of the West, there are Democrats who understand real America. Out here, far from the nation’s capital, there are Democrats who understand skepticism of the federal government. Out here, Americans will find Democrats comfortable in jeans and boots. In the West, we can find Democrats able to speak plainly in the language of real America.” It was a bit melodramatic, but the outpouring of affirmations inspired Chisholm to launch WesternDemocrat, a blog praising Western strategy and noting its successes and failures.
Politicians are backing the idea, too. Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean and former Chairman Terry McAuliffe have stated their support for westward expansion. The New West Project, launched with much fanfare in December 2006, has current politicians like Colorado Senator Ken Salazar and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson on board, with the goal of developing a regional lefty strategy. A similar group, Democrats for the West (headed by retired politicians like former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb and former U.S. Senator/Nevada Governor Richard Bryan), has been working toward the same goals since 2004.
The loose coalition has already had some success in pushing its agenda, the first major coup being the July 2006 announcement that Nevada would be holding an early caucus—after Iowa’s caucus, but before the New Hampshire primary—in hopes of forcing candidates to talk about Western issues. (New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah have also banded together for the Rocky Mountain Primary, to be held a few weeks later.) The second major win, of course, was Denver’s victory over longtime Democratic stronghold New York City for the Democratic National Convention.
Skeptics point out that Colorado has voted for a Democratic presidential candidate only twice in the past 50 years. The most recent victory, Bill Clinton in 1992, was a gift from Ross Perot, who wrangled votes that otherwise would have gone to George H.W. Bush. (Clinton only won 40 percent of the Colorado popular vote.) Before the 2004 election, the Republicans were entrenched on the state level—they held the governor’s mansion, both Senate seats, five of seven House seats, and controlled the Legislature. Colorado, it seemed, was redder than Howard Dean’s face on the campaign trail.
Then, two moderate Colorado Republican incumbents—Congressman Scott McInnis and Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell—decided to step down, opening the door for the Democrats. A blistering primary left Pete Coors wounded, and at a time when Colorado Republicans outnumbered Democrats by 176,000 voters, former State Attorney General Ken Salazar walloped Coors by 100,000 votes. Lower down on the ballot, Salazar’s brother John won McInnis’ old House seat in western Colorado, and the Democrats took control of both houses in the state Legislature for the first time since 1974. It seemed that Coloradans, while unwilling to vote for a Democrat nationally, were more than happy to vote for them locally.
Afterward, a stunned Joe Stengel, the former state House majority leader, told National Public Radio, “Our party has basically made the party platform ‘guns, God, and gays,’ and that wasn’t a winning message this election cycle, when we should have been talking about jobs, the economy, and health care.” Colorado voters, it seemed, had grown tired of the budget shortfalls and inflammatory, socially conservative rhetoric of the Republican-controlled Legislature. “The social-conservative wing has grown more dominant, both in terms of numbers and in interest, than some of the [traditional Republicans] have been able to tolerate,” says Denver-based political analyst Eric Sondermann. Even Marilyn Musgrave (gay-marriage foe) and Tom Tancredo (illegal-immigration crusader) saw their victory percentages drop, an unusual development for two incumbents in crimson-red districts. “[Musgrave and Tancredo] represent their viewpoints sincerely,” Sondermann adds. “But those aren’t faces that appeal to centrist suburban voters.”
More telling in 2004 was the presidential election. Colorado was one of only two states where George W. Bush didn’t win bigger in ’04 than he did in ’00; he beat Kerry by less than 5 percent of the vote. On an otherwise dark day for Democrats, Colorado was one of the few bright spots.
Things were even brighter for the Dems in 2006: Bill Ritter crushed a primary-wounded, poor-campaigning Bob Beauprez, giving the Dems control of the governor’s mansion and the state Legislature for the first time since the Kennedy administration. Ed Perlmutter defeated his Republican opponent for Beauprez’s old seat, and Democrats Mark Udall, Diana DeGette, and John Salazar tightened their death-grips on their seats. Just take a look at the increase of votes cast for Colorado Democrats running for House seats from 2002 to 2006.
Statewide, Democrats won a higher percentage of all votes cast than they ever had before. All of a sudden, Colorado was looking blue. Here’s a chart combining all seven districts.
Colorado wasn’t alone—Democrats across the West also did well. Democratic gubernatorial incumbents in Arizona, New Mexico, and Wyoming were convincingly re-elected, and Montana—Montana!—now has a Democratic governor, two Democratic Senators, and a split legislature. Several Western House seats went to the left, and four states in the Interior West, including Colorado, passed ballot measures to raise the minimum wage, a longtime Republican no-no that’s widely supported by the public. Here’s a look at how things got purple across the West.
Many analysts have ascribed the Democratic rise to the backlash from Bush and Rumsfeld’s Not-So-Excellent Iraqi Adventure, and it’s a big factor for the national Democrats regaining slim margins in the Senate and House. But the war is not the only reason that Democrats were elected in the West; back in ’04, when public opinion hadn’t yet swung against the Iraq war, Colorado Democrats were already succeeding.
“I think we’ve done a better job recruiting candidates,” says Wellington Webb, former Denver mayor and a past contender for the Democratic National Committee chairman’s seat. “The winning candidates [both Salazars and Ritter] have been primarily centrist, and I think that says a lot about where the country is and where the state is.”
But it’s not just Bush and centrist Democrats who are pulling Colorado leftward—it’s also a shift in demographics. Consider:
A recent Los Angeles Times editorial titled, “Californians—The GOP’s Real Migrant Problem” by Ryan Sager (author of The Elephant in the Room), claimed that much of Colorado (and the Southwest in general) was becoming Californified—and therefore bluer—by the influx of settlers from the left coast. Numbers bear the writer out: Six percent of folks living in Colorado were born in California (a big number, but peanuts compared to the 18 percent of Nevadans from California). Sager called this a “bucket of blue paint on the coast overflowing and spilling East.”
What makes the bucket blue? Education, for one thing. About 1 million Coloradans over 25 years old possess college degrees—one of the highest rates in the country. Three-quarters of those degree holders, however, weren’t born in Colorado, meaning that a significant number of Colorado migrants are well-educated. And college degrees tend to favor the Democrats—Kerry beat out Bush in 2004 among Colorado college graduates (50 percent to 48 percent), while Western Democratic House members did even better (54 percent to 43 percent). In 2006, the difference was even more pronounced—59 percent voted Democrat.
In short, more transplants means more college degrees. And more college degrees mean more Democrat voters.
Though Hispanics make up a larger portion of the United States population every year, Colorado’s location in the Southwest means it’s on the lead edge of the curve. About 910,000—roughly one out of five—Coloradans are Hispanic, a number that’s only growing.
That’s a problem for Republicans. Although many Hispanics are Catholic and tend to be socially conservative, some Republicans have taken radical stances in the current immigration battle, alienating a potentially promising constituency. (Watch the upcoming Tancredo presidential run.)
Not all Republicans have had such a knee-jerk reaction—President Bush, for one, has been a firm proponent of a guest-worker program and enjoys relatively high support among the Hispanic community. Even Bush’s support, however, has been overstated. In 2004, the media made a big deal about Bush winning 44 percent of the national Hispanic vote (a number that was, upon further study, reduced to 40 percent). In Colorado, however, only 30 percent of Hispanics voted for Bush. And while some in the media attributed Kerry’s success with Colorado Hispanics to the “Ken Salazar coat-tailing effect,” a look back at 2000 shows that the left/right split was nearly the same (Gore: 67 percent, Bush: 33 percent).
It is fitting that Barry Goldwater, a Westerner and Arizona senator, popularized libertarianism. The “live and let live” ideology advocates limited government interference into the economic and social lives of its citizens. In other words, the government should stay out of our homes, keep gun-control laws loose, and tolerate abortion, gay rights, and free speech; of course, taxes should be as low as possible. According to the Cato Institute, 13 percent of Americans—around 28 million—possess libertarian beliefs. Roughly a third of that group live in the Western United States, making ours the most libertarian region in the country.
So, while the West may be fiscally conservative, a virulent strain of social libertarianism runs through it as well, as Sager notes in Elephant. Looking at studies from the Pew Research Center, he points out that on issues like religion, gay rights, and book banning, there’s a “cultural gulf between the South and the interior West—with the interior West often looking in its attitudes much closer to blue-state Northeasterners and Pacific Coasters than to their fellow red staters. Cultural libertarianism…is pretty deeply ingrained in the West.”
Conversely, the West contains the fewest number of evangelical Christians, who often hold socially conservative stances. A recent study showed that, despite the presence of organizations like James Dobson’s Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs, only 24 percent of Coloradans identified themselves as evangelical or born-again Protestants. Sounds like a lot, but that puts Colorado toward the bottom of the evangelical list, with states like Michigan, Minnesota, and Washington. Percentages in states like Tennessee, Kentucky, and Arkansas were twice as high as Colorado’s.
Some skeptics have pointed to Colorado’s recent gay-marriage ban as an example of anti-libertarianism, but it’s not so black and white. Colorado passed the ban, but it did so by a small margin—56 percent of voters approved it, placing Colorado in the company of centrist and liberal-leaning Wisconsin and Oregon. Meanwhile, the gay-marriage ban approval rate topped 80 percent in fire-engine-red states like Tennessee and Alabama. Looking at the chart above, there’s a strong correlation between a state’s percentage of evangelical constituents and the strength of the gay-marriage bans.
National Republicans also felt the wrath of the libertarians. As the Bush administration courted the socially conservative evangelical vote (see: Terry Schiavo, gay-marriage bans), ran up record deficits, and pushed through the privacy-infringing Patriot Act, a substantial portion of the libertarian vote switched sides. While Bush won 72 percent of the libertarian vote in 2000, his support dropped to 59 percent in the 2004 election.
A prescient Barry Goldwater predicted the fraying of the Republicans’ social conservative and libertarian marriage as early as 1994: “When you say ‘radical right’ today, I think of these moneymaking ventures by fellows like Pat Robertson and others who are trying to take the Republican Party and make a religious organization out of it,” he told The Washington Post. “If that ever happens, kiss politics goodbye.”
In a state where registered Republicans (36 percent of voters) outnumber Democrats (30 percent), how can the Dems ever win? The answer: unaffiliated, or independent, voters. Though independents are generally considered a valuable swing group, that’s not totally the case—the name “independent” is actually a bit of a misnomer.
According to election surveys by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, 74 percent of national “independent” voters lean toward one of the two major parties. And the Democrats have the edge—43 percent of “independent” voters lean Democrat, while only 31 percent lean Republican. With over a million so-called independents in Colorado, that’s enough to pull the Democrats a lot closer to a 2008 victory. Look.
If the Annenberg study is right, then Colorado Democrats are within spitting distance of the Republicans. And election numbers support the Democratic tilt. According to CNN exit polls, 52 percent of Colorado independents voted for John Kerry in 2004, and only 45 percent for Bush. In 2006 Western races for the House, the split was even more pronounced—58 percent of independents voted for Democrats, while a scant 35 percent sided with Republicans.
Maybe. Check that—a really big maybe.
As with the 2006 midterms, the biggest issue in the 2008 presidential election will be the war in Iraq. If Bush’s “surge” of 21,500 troops manages to quell the insurgency and turn the tide of the war, Republicans—particularly war advocates like Arizona Senator John McCain—may ride the crest into the Oval Office. If the surge—or, as former North Carolina Senator John Edwards has dubbed it, the “McCain Doctrine”— fails, the Republican backers may suffer another “thumpin’.”
Regardless, for any candidate to succeed in the West, he or she will need to take a strong stand on national security. “You can be against the war in Iraq,” says analyst Sondermann, “but you still have to demonstrate some muscle on national-security issues. You cannot come from the pacifist wing of the Democratic party.”
Politicians successful in the West have also been willing to step out of the party line and stake out their own positions. Witness: John McCain (campaign finance), Tom Tancredo (immigration), Ken Salazar (Alberto Gonzales’ confirmation), and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson (declared a state of emergency due to illegal immigration). To succeed in the West, says Sondermann, Democrats have to worry “whether they’re regarded as a predictable card-carrying liberal, whether they’re supported vociferously by every one of the vocal interest groups, or whether they have this Western degree of independence.”
As of now, only two Western candidates are making noise: Bill Richardson and Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer. Both have taken strong stands on national security and immigration and appeal to the kind of Americans living in the West—and, for that matter, the Midwest or the South. In other words, the regular Joe you’d like to meet up with to have a beer and watch football. As of press time, only Richardson is in the race, having started an “exploratory committee” to look at his presidential chances.
“Those are candidates who’ve proven their knack for resonating with Western voters,” says Sondermann. “But color me a little bit doubtful that they’re going to be among the finalists.” Political scientist Schaller agrees: “I don’t think the Democrats are going to have a Western candidate on the top of the ticket. But they’d be very smart to find a Western candidate to be the vice presidential nominee.”
A centrist Democrat, however, isn’t going to appease the party’s traditional coastal base. “The problem—and the same holds true for Republicans—is that it’s awful hard to nominate somebody who upsets the extremists of your party,” says Denver-based political analyst Katy Atkinson. “It’s the extremists that tend to turn out for the primaries.”
And the Democratic extremists (read: coastal liberals) are more likely to vote for, well, a coastal liberal, who is bound to struggle in Colorado and the West. “A Democrat from the Northeast out of the John Kerry mold is going to have a huge uphill climb in Colorado,” says Sondermann. Remember those pictures of Kerry snowboarding in Sun Valley, Idaho, and goose hunting with locals in Ohio? Those stunts don’t play well in the West, where voters have a hair-trigger bullshit detector. “When John Kerry came to Nevada to speak, he said, ‘It’s great to be here in Nev-ODD-a,’” says Stratton, Richardson’s campaign adviser. “That said it right there.”
Are there any big-time East-of-the Mississippi liberals who might fare better than Kerry? North Carolina’s John Edwards already sunk with Kerry in ’04. Illinois Senator Barack Obama? Untested. New York Senator Hillary Clinton? Plenty of baggage from a life spent in politics.
It’s a classic Catch-22: The traditional Democrats want a card-carrying liberal; the new Western Democrats want a centrist tough-guy. Unless they can find a loophole, the Dems may once again cede the vote to the Republicans. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani is socially liberal (pro-choice, pro gay-rights), former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney helped pass universal health care in his state, and Senator McCain is perceived as the eternal hard-knuckled maverick. Those are three big obstacles to the Democrats’ success in November 2008.
Still, Denver’s role as convention host should work in the Democrats’ favor. “The DNC knows that the future of the party is in the West,” says Stratton. Regardless of which candidate ends up under the balloons and streamers at the Pepsi Center, he (or she) will be speaking on Western issues: immigration, energy, the environment. As Stratton says, “They need to speak our language.”
Here’s a pointer: Practice your vowel pronunciation—and don’t put on the cowboy hat ’til you know how to say “Colorado.”
Patrick Doyle is an assistant editor at 5280.